Wednesday, January 16, 2019

How did Charlotte’s big bike-ped trail run out of money?

Not for recreation only: The Little Sugar Creek Greenway beside Kings Drive in Midtown makes a convenient route for shoppers. The Cross-Charlotte Trail is envisioned as both recreation and transportation. Photo: Nancy Pierce

What should we make of the news this month that the proposed Cross-Charlotte Trail, a joint city-county project, is some $77 million short of the city money it needs to be finished?

That’s essentially what the Charlotte City Council was told Jan. 7 – that to complete the 26-mile bike-pedestrian trail across the county would require an estimated $77 million beyond the $38 million in city money previously allocated (and mostly spent).

Did costs balloon along the way? Why was the council seemingly blindsided? And what happens next?

Plenty of finger-pointing has ensued. City Manager Marcus Jones told the Charlotte Observer, “I’m going to own this.”

After talking with a variety of folks about the trial and its funding problem, my conclusions:

No. 1: Not enough people were paying enough attention to the original cost estimates for a trail through the heart of the city, or to how rising construction and land costs everywhere would inevitably drive up costs.

No. 2: City and county governments still work in separate silos. Early city estimates, dating to 2012, relied too heavily on what the county had spent to build greenways, apparently with city officials not realizing the county greenways generally only get built where land acquisition is free or cheap and where topography is not complex.

No. 3: The City Council wasn’t updated regularly enough, especially as land and construction costs began rising after 2012, as the city finally pulled out of the recession.

No. 4: Turnover in city leadership probably did not help.

How a city trail is related to the county’s greenway program

Some background. One essential fact to understand is that Charlotte has no park and recreation department. In 1992, the Charlotte parks department was absorbed into the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department. Whether that was a good move is a topic for another day. The county park department plans, funds, builds and maintains greenways, which typically run beside creeks, in large part because land there tends not to be developed, or else a candidate for the county’s floodplain buyout or creek restoration programs. In other words, getting right-of-way hasn’t required a lot of county greenway money.

It also helps to know that in 2010, in the depths of the economic downturn here, the cash-strapped county slashed its park department budget by almost half. It has not restored staffing to 2010 levels, despite a county population increase from 2010 to 2017 of more than 157,000 people – larger than the entire population of Charleston, or Asheville.
The Toby Creek Greenway near UNC Charlotte is an already-open part of the Cross-Charlotte Trail. Photo: Nancy Pierce

Because the county’s greenway expenditures haven’t been robust, large gaps exist in the county greenway master plan. (See The long, long path for one Charlotte greenway about the Toby Creek Greenway.) In 1999 Mecklenburg County adopted a 10-year-master plan goal of 185 greenway miles. By 2008 only a cumulative total of 30 miles had been built. By 2018 the number had inched up to 47 miles of developed greenways. (For more on the slow rate of greenway building, see “Why does greenway vision remain unfulfilled?”

In 2012 the city – which considers greenways part of the transportation system but which hasn’t really built any – proposed helping the county build some of those unfinished miles of its greenway plan, generally along Little Sugar Creek, to create a 26-mile bike-pedestrian trail from the S.C. border near Pineville to the Cabarrus County line north of UNC Charlotte. It would be a $38 million project, the proposal said, paid through a series of bond issues. To date, three bond issues have funded $38 million.

Why was the budget estimate so far off?

Put together the puzzle pieces and what emerges is a picture of a project with too few people paying attention to its budget.

The city proposed the trail in 2012, says Charlotte Department of Transportation Director Liz Babson. But anyone who was following construction costs in Charlotte and familiar with the county’s greenway methods (with as little capital outlay as possible) should have known a construction estimate dating to 2012 might have a few problems. Further, the parts the city agreed to build are through much more intensely developed areas, and areas where no easy trail routes can be found.

Did city transportation staff know much about county greenways?

Further complicating that 2012 budget estimate from the Charlotte Department of Transportation is that they based it on the county’s per-mile greenway construction costs. Both Babson and former CDOT Director Danny Pleasant, now an assistant city manager, described that as one of the problems. Remember, the county was building on cheap or free land, and not where land or construction costs would be high. As Babson told me this week, “We had never built a trail before.” The city applied county per-mile construction estimates to greenway segments the county “had chosen not to build,” she said. “And now we know why.”

Changing faces among city staff and elected officials

In addition, city government was seeing plenty of turnover in high places. City Manager Curt Walton retired in 2012, as the Cross-Charlotte Trail plans were being hatched. Three more city managers have come since then: Ron Carlee (2013-2016), interim Ron Kimble (half of 2016), and Marcus Jones (December 2016-today). Department heads have changed as well. Today’s CDOT director, Babson, has been in that job only a year.
Little Sugar Creek Greenway at Parkwood
Avenue. Photo: Nancy Pierce

Further, five more mayors have served since 2012. Anthony Foxx left in 2013 to become U.S. Transportation Secretary. Succeeding him were Patsy Kinsey, Patrick Cannon, Dan Clodfelter, Jennifer Roberts and now Mayor Vi Lyles. It probably didn't help that Cannon was indicted,  resigned and pleaded guilty in 2014, creating months of upheaval in city government.

Even the 11-member City Council has seen unusually large turnover. Six of the 11 council members were new to the job in 2017.

Should City Council members have been so surprised?

It’s clear from their reactions that City Council members didn’t understand the scope of the funding shortfall.

You can’t help but wonder whether more robust cooperation across the city-county governments (can you say “tall silos”?) might have left council members more informed about the overall greenway program and its budget-constrained approach.

Hints were dropped here and there, but it’s hard to fault council members for not picking up on them. Several council members recall being told early in 2018 at a council retreat that the $38 million couldn’t fund the whole Cross-Charlotte Trail. But remember, six new council members were still in the drinking-from-a-firehose-of-information stage.

In addition, the 2016 Cross-Charlotte Trail Master Plan refers to the need for more money. “It is anticipated that resources in addition to the bond proceeds will be required to construct and maintain the trail,” it says. And, “We recommend that future bond allocations be considered as the primary funding opportunity to pay for large remaining gaps in costs.”

But come on. Those warnings are in the text on pages 149 and 150.

Babson conceded to me this week, “I don’t think we were in front of council as often as we needed to be.”

What happens next?

City Manger Jones, in an interview with local NPR station WFAE, said, “The commitment is to finish the Cross Charlotte Trail in its original version.” He said he’s looking at options, including possibly using a portion of the city’s tourism tax funding to pay for some of the trail.

Another likely possibility is that as development occurs along the unfinished portions of the trail’s route, such as along the Blue Line Extension light rail, the city would work with developers and encourage them to build some segments or to dedicate land to the trail project, the way they’d get developers to build a sidewalk or pay for a traffic signal.

There could be more bond issues, since the city holds bond referendums every few years for other infrastructure projects such as street widening and intersection expansions. State or federal grant programs might help with some of the costs.

Council member Greg Phipps, a veteran of the council’s transportation and planning committee, predicted Monday the council would continue to support the trail. “The vision of the trail hasn’t changed. We’ve come this far. We have to find a way to complete this thing.”

Students use Torrence Creek Greenway in Huntersville as a transportation route on a Walk To School Day in 2015. Photo: Nancy Pierce